(This is part 2 in our lymphatic series, part 1 can be found here The Forgotten System - Lymphatics)

Fortunately, the patients we see regularly are not at the end range of lymphatic failure. But the system can still be playing a major role in your issues. And thus must be treated accordingly. 

foot massageThe most common sign of lymphatic system involvement is swelling. Whether it’s at the sight of an acute injury such as an ankle sprain, or at the feet/ankles after a long plane ride or car trip. 

Other common sign as listed in our last article include; 

  • Changes in skin, it may become tighter or discoloured.
  • Persistent swelling that does not resolve.
  • Bloating.
  • Heaviness, commonly in your head or legs.
  • Frequent infections, that you find hard to shake. 
  • Fever, chills, itching. 
  • Slow, painful recovery post surgery.  
  • Chronic illnesses not resolving as expected. 

The way we look at injuries of the lymphatic system is simple. We see it as a problem with the flow of fluid. The biggest driver of fluid flow in the body is respiration. Which is controlled mainly by the contraction and relaxation of the thoracic diaphragm. We treat this area first to restore the main fluid pump. 

We then move peripherally over specific areas essential for uninterrupted lymph flow. Such as the armpit for the draining of the arm, the thoracic ducts where the lymph enters the venous system beneath both clavicles. The anterior hips where all the fluid in the legs must pass through. The bottom of the feet and the back of the knees. The sinus’ in the face and the flow down either side of the neck. As we treat these vital areas we can mobilize the vessels along their path as well as screening for any tight/fibrous structures that would impede optimal flow. 

We can also work on the abdominal organs, mobilising them to encourage flow in/out of their cells. Which with a newly cleared system should drain away and encourage better function. 

Additionally working on the autonomic nervous system in the head and neck as well as along the length of the thoracic spine can alter muscle tone and blood flow which also play a roll in the integrity of the lymphatic system. 

By understanding the role of each body system and how they integrate with each other we are able to affect change to increase health in numerous ways. 

Things you can do at home

It’s important with any manual therapy to not only treat the patient week to week but empower your patient at home by showing them ways in which they can speed up recovery and prevent further injury. 

Some simple tips to help with lymph flow at home;

  • Stay hydrated, your body works best when fluid levels are optimal. This is especially true for your lymphatic system. The drain doesn’t work if its dry! 
  • Keep moving!!! The lymphatic vessels do not have strong muscular walls like arteries, they rely on muscle contractions to pump the lymph around. If we barely move, the lymph barely moves.
  • Self massage. Those areas like the bottom of the feet, the back of the knees, the front of the hips the upper chest and the sides of the neck. Take your three middle fingers, place them on the skin with firm pressure and move in small circles. The more mobile these areas are the better the lymph flow. 
  • Diaphragm breathing, this increases the pressure within the abdominal cavity which massages all those organs and also acts as a huge pump for the lymphatic fluid throughout the body.   

A Metaphor 

Sometimes concepts are hard to grasp, we often find it easier when we can relate the concept to real life situations. Here is my take. 

Imagine the houses of a neighbourhood as individual cells, and roads are arteries and veins that carry things to and away from them. Now imagine the stormwater drains underneath the roads picking up all the trash from outside the houses and all the rain water. This is essentially our lymphatic system. We want to get all that water washed down the drains back into our drinking water but first we have to clean it and treat it to make sure its safe. Just like the lymph nodes do to our lymph before it is dumped back into our circulatory system. 

If the storm water drain is blocked it backs up and floods the streets with toxicity, spreading disease.  We have to re-route traffic which slows flow and stops us getting the things we need to our houses. Much like what happens in our bodies when our own lymphatic system is compromised. 

Some Cool Facts

Lymph (the fluid in the lymphatic vessels) is often coloured green in medical diagrams. We can only assume this is the case because red and blue were already taken. In reality lymph is usually clear. However recent studies have suggested that the ink from tattoos placed on the skin is slowly absorbed by the body over time through the lymphatic vessels. Which can give the lymph from these specific areas a slightly blackish colour. No adverse health effects have been found but the presence of titanium and nickel found in adjacent lymph nodes has been linked to tattoo ink absorption.  

Lymph nodes can be felt quite easily, especially in the neck and jaw area. What we look for when feeling lymph nodes is that they are soft and mobile and painless. If they are painful hard and rigid consult your GP. 

So what about the cell debris and waste that gets into the bloodstream? Our body is quite good at stopping these toxic things from entering the bloodstream. But it does happen, in fact red blood cells break down in the blood and should be excreted to create room for new ones. Yes this is yet another job for a part of our lymphatic system. This is the role of the spleen. It filters our blood much like a giant lymph node, removing anything it deems harmful with specific immune cells. Yes we can live without our spleen, but those that have it removed will have higher concentrations of old red blood cells that don’t work quite as well as their younger friends. 

By Louis Heydon

Lymphatic system